After the first bite comes the disappointment. There is a moment, maybe a second or two after you’ve just twirled up that first forkful of pasta and popped it into your mouth, when you realize it: This is not good. This is a mistake, a complete waste of carbohydrates.
That’s what I thought as I stared down at the plate of cacio e pepe sitting in front of me on the starched white table cloth, a pile of ever-so-slightly overcooked noodles surrounded by a pool of watery, greasy sauce – unappetizing to look at, even less appetizing to eat. It tasted like butter, which had absolutely no business showing up in this particular pasta. What it didn’t taste like was cheese, which was odd, considering that cacio e pepe’s whole reason for existing is cheese. When a pasta with a sauce that is supposed to be made entirely from cheese and pepper tastes like neither cheese nor pepper, there is a problem.
I probably should have sent it back to the kitchen. Instead, I asked for a bowl of grated pecorino, dumped the entire thing over the pasta and ate my way through about half of it before reaching the buttery lake of disappointment at the bottom and calling it quits. It wasn’t the first time this had happened – there’s a cozy-looking restaurant a short walk from my apartment that’s guilty of serving me a cacio e pepe that tasted like nothing but butter – and it probably won’t be the last. It’s not as though I have anything against butter in general; true, I do have a somewhat complicated relationship with it, raving about buttery cakes and salted butter caramel and then flat-out rejecting a piece of bread with even the tiniest swipe of butter on it, but I know it has its place.
The classic Roman pastas, though, are not the place for butter, which doesn’t even really make an appearance in Roman culinary history. The amatriciana and gricia rely exclusively on porky guanciale for fat. The carbonara throws in an egg or two and a healthy grating of pecorino cheese for creaminess, and then the cacio e pepe takes away everything but the cheese and still ends up with the creamiest sauce imaginable. When cacio e pepe is done right, it’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s exactly what you want to eat on a rainy day or a cold day or the kind of day where nothing much is going according to plan: cheese, and copious amounts of carbohydrates. Sharp, salty, liquified cheese wrapped around strands of fresh pasta.
And I don’t know about you, but when I eat something that’s simultaneously so indulgent and so dead simple, I want it to be right. That’s why I get so worked up about a buttery cacio e pepe – it’s not just about disliking the ingredient, it’s about cutting corners and cutting back on quality ingredients and, on top of that, always feeling the need to add something gratuitous into an overwhelmingly simple recipe with years and years of tradition behind it. When a restaurant slips butter into a cacio e pepe, they’re doing it because it lets them get away with using just a little bit less of that comparatively expensive Pecorino Romano cheese in each portion. They’re doing it because the sauce stays creamier and more liquid for longer rather than drying out and seizing up if the plates sit around for too long before making their way out to the table. Cacio e pepe exists in that very narrow space between a watery disaster and a solid, congealed block; butter makes that space just a little bit wider. Unfortunately, it also changes the flavour, cutting back on the sharp cheesiness and adding a generic buttery richness.
Thankfully, there are countless places in Rome that serve a solid, butter-free cacio e pepe. I’ve homed in on a few in my own neighbourhood, I’ve latched onto friends’ favourites and turned them into my own, and I’ve trekked across the city to try various glowing recommendations for myself. But sometimes, cacio e pepe feels more like the kind of dish I want to cook at home, in my pajamas, so that I can sneak pinches of grated cheese beforehand and then collapse onto the couch in a kind of cheese-and-carb-induced coma afterwards. And at home, I can guarantee myself that there will be no butter in my cacio e pepe.
Pasta with cheese and pepper · Feeds 2 as a main course
Cacio e pepe is one of those recipes that’s very nearly not a recipe for how simple it is. Because you’re only tasting a handful of flavours, don’t skimp on the quality of the ingredients. Get a good-quality pasta – thick, fresh tonnarelli noodles are a classic in Rome and have a wonderful chewiness to them, but you might find it easier to source dried pasta. Spaghettoni (thick spaghetti) is a good choice if you’re going this route. Keep in mind that dried pasta absorbs much less water than fresh pasta, so you might want to cut back on the quantity of water you add to the cheese a bit. Use whole pepper grains, which have a much fresher flavour than the pre-cracked version, and buy good quality Pecorino Romano cheese. Try to find a version that’s neither very young (which doesn’t have a strong enough flavour) nor very aged (which contains much less water and can be much more difficult to melt).
When it’s time to melt the cheese, you’ll take a scoop of water (more or less equal in weight to the cheese) from the pasta pot just a couple of minutes before the pasta is fully cooked, let it cool for a minute (if it’s boiling hot, you’ll just make the cheese separate into stringy clumps and oily blobs – 50°C to 55°C (122°F to 131°F) is ideal if you’ve got a thermometer on hand) and then slowly, bit-by-bit, mix it into the cheese while stirring. You’re aiming for a consistency that’s neither watery nor gluey – it should flow from the spoon when you scoop it up, but it should still look thick. Don’t panic if you add too much water – just grate more cheese in while it’s still hot and keep stirring to melt it in.
Put a big pot of water on the stove to boil.
In a skillet, toast the whole peppercorns until they start to crackle and pop. Crush them with a mortar and pestle, without letting them get too finely ground (you can also pour the toasted pepper corns into your pepper grinder and grind them directly onto the pasta if you don’t have a mortar and pestle on hand).
When the water is at a full, rolling boil, add the salt and then the pasta. Cook according to the time on the package.
Put the finely grated cheese into a large bowl. When the pasta is a few minutes away from being done, scoop out a mug full of pasta water and let it cool down to around 55°C. Pour it slowly over the cheese, stirring as you go, until it is liquid enough that it flows from a spoon when scooped up and is free of cheese lumps. Stir in most of the pepper, reserving a bit for the end.
When the pasta is finished cooking, strain it and then dump it directly into the bowl with the cheese. Immediately, using tongs or a couple of spoons, start to toss the pasta until it’s evenly coated with cheese.
Serve immediately, topping each portion with a final sprinkling of pepper (and, if you really like cheese, another small grating of Pecorino Romano).